15 Best TV Shows of Summer 2019: ‘Succession,’ ‘GLOW,’ Kirsten Dunst & More
Looking back at the best, cleverest, most unexpected and most addicting TV series of the summer. The age of #TooMuchTV is the only sunblock we need.
In 2019, we’re all about body positivity. So we bellowed the affirmational rebuttal to beach body culture: The summer is going to get whatever body I give it! For this fair-skinned TV critic with more hours of screeners to watch than there are in a day, that “body” is practically a translucent muffin top. It’s been well-earned, too, with this being one of the strongest summers of television since I’ve started doing this job.
Narrowing it down to the 15 best is nearly impossible, but necessary: If we can’t do that for these three months of the year, what prayer do we have for an end-of-year list?
Before you read this, it must be said that, no, I did not get to see everything—though I watched at least a little of a lot of things. No, I’m not sure these are the right 15; in fact, my opinion on this ranking changed three times just while writing it. (Mindhunter, Claws, Younger, David Makes Man, The Handmaid’s Tale, Why Women Kill, Derry Girls, and The Real Housewives of Potomac were all at one point on this list.) And, yes, I did see Euphoria.
Got some extra time this Labor Day weekend? Here are the 15 best TV shows of the summer for you to check out.
15. Big Little Lies (HBO)
In a tough race, Big Little Lies season two makes it in just by the skin of Meryl Streep’s fake teeth. Listen, this season was a mess, and failed to meet the level of that phenomenal, game-changing first go-round. But was it a riot to see these brilliant actresses back in Monterey again? Yes. Was Meryl Streep outstanding? Duh. Preposterous as the circumstances were, was that Streep vs. Kidman courtroom scene spellbinding? Couldn’t look away. Trash Big Little Lies all you want. I can’t hear you over Meryl Streep’s scream.
14. Grand Hotel (ABC)
OK. I know. I know. There are more than a dozen shows that aired this summer that probably deserve a place on this list above this one. But there’s something about the kind of show that Grand Hotel represents, the slight and sexy summer soap opera that gave rise to the term “guilty pleasure,” that I was immediately nostalgic for when watching the ABC series. The show is certainly imperfect and could stand to be more addicting—it’s based on a telenovela, after all—but the unapologetic abs, twists, and scandal transported me in a way that the rise of summer prestige TV simply can’t do.
13. The Boys (Amazon)
Go figure that the best superhero entertainment of the summer wasn’t any of those $500 million movies blanketing the multiplex every weekend, but instead a dark, hyper-violent Amazon series that dissects and comments on the genre and the culture that surrounds it as much as it thrives in and because of those very things. That might sound heady, betraying the fact that the show is, in its own way, also extremely fun.
12. The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance (Netflix)
When you’re writing about, reviewing, taking notes, dissecting, and basically “working” while watching TV—as is my job—it can be hard to dissociate when watching something. So it was a surprise, albeit a welcome one, to find myself unknowingly leaning back in my chair, utterly engrossed in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. I have never seen the movie for which the series is a prequel. But it’s so visually wondrous, with puppet work from the Jim Henson Company that simply astonished me, that I was swept away. That the story itself happens to be so resonant, too. Icing on the cake.
11. Below Deck: Mediterranean (Bravo)
“June, June, Hannah.” Three simple words make, for me, the line of the summer. Sometimes that’s all you need to be entertained, a simple mystery like why spacey yacht steward June would never, not once, no matter how many reprimands, answer her radio when her boss, Hannah, calls. Or you need the utterly basic drama of the season’s early villain, a homophobic Russian chef named Mila who, despite touting five-star culinary training, could not even make edible nachos. Short of boarding Captain Sandy’s luxury yacht itself, the easy pleasures of Bravo’s now delightfully settled-into reality series is the mental vacation any summer needs.
10. Pose (FX)
After earning a flood of headlines about the historic nature of its sheer existence last year, Pose season two wasn’t a victory lap as it much as it was a vigorous sprint further into its mission. The truth about living with the threat of HIV and AIDS at the beginning of the ’90s was told with more heartbreaking grit. The lives of the trans women at the center of the series were given more dignity and perspective. The joy of the family these marginalized people have chosen for themselves more exuberant. And the costumes, honey. The performances. The dancing. The production. The drama. 10, 10, 10...10s across the board.
9. A Black Lady Sketch Show (HBO)
The first ever sketch show to star a cast featuring all women of color, A Black Lady Sketch Show grappled with the pressures of being a “first” and the spotlight put on its “approach to diversity” in the best way possible: by being really damn funny. Led by creator Robin Thede and featuring a red carpet’s worth of cameos and guest stars—Angela Bassett, Issa Rae, Patti LaBelle, to name a few—the crackling comedy was specific, smart, and ballsy. As she’s proved over and over in her career, give Thede a platform, and watch her blast off from it.
8. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
Orange Is the New Black changed TV as we know it. Not only is it the most-watched series on Netflix ever, it is also the one that proved the potential of the streaming service as a game-changer in original content. It threw a grenade at a Hollywood system resistant to diversity in casting and storytelling. How gratifying, then, to see the long-running series stick the landing in its final season with an unflinching look at the treatment of detainees in immigration detention centers and a brutal reminder of the ways in which our criminal justice system fails those it is meant to serve.
7. Stranger Things (Netflix)
The plot of season 3 of Stranger Things was pretty much the same as the plot of every other season of Stranger Things. That repetitiveness, which can be so many other series’ greatest weakness, proved refreshing in this kind of nostalgic, blockbuster series—the kind of familiarity you crave in summer. That’s not to say the third go-round rested on its laurels. The thrills were more exhilarating. The effects were more impressive. The stakes were higher and darker, yet the humor was lighter and more fun. All that, plus Steve in a sailor’s costume.
6. Los Espookys (HBO)
It can’t be overstated how peculiar this show is. Co-created by and starring Julio Torres, the idiosyncratic writer responsible for Saturday Night Live’s best sketches, the series is about a group of friends with a passion for staging haunted houses and fright experiences. But plot is superseded by mood here, which is so profoundly bizarre and yet so comedically sharp that you’ll WTF your way into copious LOLs.
5. GLOW (Netflix)
A lot of people were really into the first two seasons of GLOW. I respected the genius story conceit—a look at the making of an all-female wrestling TV show in the ’80s—and the exceptional acting performances, but felt that it was a series kind of spinning its wheels; everyone teaming up against insurmountable odds to put on a scrappy show... rinse, repeat.
Season three moved the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling to Las Vegas, where the show becomes an established success, and instead focused more deeply on the struggles, contradictions, hopes, dreams, and heartbreaks of the women involved. The result is one of the more poignant seasons of TV this year, and, with Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, featuring some of the best two-hander acting scenes, encapsulating a fascinating look at female friendship.
4. Are You the One? (MTV)
The biggest surprise of the summer was how a super-trashy MTV dating show in its eighth season somehow transformed itself into a super-trashy MTV dating show that you absolutely had to watch every single second of and then obsess about with everyone you know for days. (Raise your hand if you would literally die for Jenna.)
The gimmick behind this season of the already gimmick-saturated Are You the One?—in which horny alcoholics live in a house together and try to figure out who is their “perfect match”—is that everyone is sexually fluid. That means anyone could match, aka bone, anyone. And they do! In one episode, a trans man has sex with both a cis girl and cis boy in the same night. There is an episode called “There Was a Fivesome?” (There was.) It’s gross! It’s beautiful! It’s PROGRESSIVE! It’s shamelessly addicting and quite possibly brilliant, the utopian ideal of reality-TV sluttiness that we’ve all been waiting for.
3. On Becoming a God in Central Florida (Showtime)
You could come for the Kirsten Dunst powerhouse performance alone and be satisfied watching On Becoming a God in Central Florida, the quirkiest and maybe because of that, the most satisfying new series of the summer. Finally waking up to the underrated talents of the former child star is a hot topic now thanks to the show, and it’s better late than never.
But then there’s the show itself, which stars Dunst as a struggling young mother somewhere outside Orlando in the 1990s (the period details will thrill you and make you cringe), a former pageant queen who faces potential ruin after her husband drowns all the family’s finances in a pyramid scheme. It’s equal parts heartbreaking and rousing to watch a girl who is underestimated draw on her natural gifts to save her family. And, more broadly, it’s a topical depiction of our country’s long tradition of capitalism exploiting hope.
2. Succession (HBO)
After a timid start to its first season (well, frankly, it was a pretty damn boring one, actually), Succession swaggered into season two with its dick swinging. But everything that finally succeeded (hey-oh!) by the end of season one is back, sharper, wittier, and more outrageous: the anxiety-inducing backstabbing of the Roy family; the boorish haplessness undercutting everyone’s boundless egos; and the ridiculous set pieces (season two sees your underground bachelor party in Berlin and raises it a hunting trip in Hungary culminating in a rousing round of “Boar on the Floor.”)
Also more potent than ever: the discomfort you experience while watching. This Murdochian/Trumpian/Redstonian family, as rapacious an example of the top one percent of the top one percent as there’s ever been on TV, embodies everything we’re supposed to condemn and despise at this time in our country. So why do we love watching them so much?
1. Years and Years (HBO)
It’s not exactly your TV equivalent of a frothy, distracting beach read, but hey, these days even when we’re relaxing in the sand it’s hard to distract your mind from what’s happening in the world. Years and Years, then, confronts you with all that stuff head-on. Worse, it terrifies you with what’s to come. Russell Davies’ aching, alarming, and brutally alive depiction of our collective panic about the state of the world is the epitome of “hard to watch,” not because of what it says about us now, but because of what it says about a future in which the repercussions from today will be inescapable. It would be nihilistic if it wasn’t all so... inevitable.
At the center of it all is the Lyons family. Through their eyes we see, in essence, the world burn. There are towering performances here, from Emma Thompson playing an upsettingly believable political zealot, and, as a gay couple desperate to stay together after one is deported, Russell Tovey and Maxim Baldry—coincidentally, the duo responsible for the most viscerally, unshakably upsetting hour of television I’ve seen in ages.